Talking about School Reform and Feeling Depressed

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.

Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.

I learned that:

*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see

* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See

* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have (See

* I learned that both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries (See )

I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.

After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system to make organizational and instructional changes. Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”

I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.

The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit tradeoffs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however,  are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.

The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered  the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.

So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?

Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that their time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.

What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.



Filed under Reforming schools

5 responses to “Talking about School Reform and Feeling Depressed

  1. Sandy

    My only concern with you last comment, “still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved” – is what about all the ill-conceived reform efforts? I have a hard time lumping all reform efforts into one broad category like this.
    I taught a graduate course for TFAers – they were burned out, stressed out, and looked like deer in the headlights. I think they were sold a bill a goods about “making a difference.” I was the last class they needed to take for an MEd degree and only 4 of the 17 students had any intention of going back into the urban classroom. Very sad. I gave them my best, but got nothing in return since what I had to teach them wasn’t something they were going to implement because they wouldn’t be teaching again.
    There’s a difference between being a reformer and being a teacher – a teacher is in it for the kids, not for the glory.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment and example of teaching TFAers in response to my cryptic line: “still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved.” Let me unpack what I meant by that line.

      Many things in life we do because we believe that they are worthwhile ventures. We hope we will succeed (and the measures and meaning of success varies by the person, cultural norms, etc.) but we do not know whether we will or not. We take a risk. Getting married. Having children. Biking across the country.

      I believe teaching is like that. We invest ourselves in the act of teaching every day in the hope that we will succeed with all of our students but, after years of experience, we come to know two things: first, that success is measured in as many different ways as the students we have and, second, that in more cases than we would like to remember, success–however defined and measured–eludes us with some students. Knowing both “truths” in our head and heart does not mean that we stop teaching. The act of teaching someone else, of helping another person learn something of importance, is so worthwhile in of itself that even when success is doubtful or perhaps impossible, the act remains worth doing. That is what I meant.

  2. Jane Remer

    Dear Larry – I would like to send you my latest blog that will soon arrive on
    please tell me where to send /email it

  3. Linda Johnson

    Hi Larry,
    You and I met about 45 years ago when you came to Ohio State for the Urban Teacher Education Project. At the time I was a “Master Teacher” for the project even though I had only taught for three years. Professors Blanke and Galloway were in charge. Do you remember?

    I heard something about Stanford and I am wondering if it’s true. Someone said that the College of Education does not like to educate teachers because “we prepare leaders.” In other words they just want to educate people who plan to be administrators or other leaders. Could this possibly be true? If it is, that says so much about who we are as a nation.

    You have often said that nothing will happen in education without teachers. I wish you had told your students that because each and every one of them can achieve “reform” if they define it as improving education for urban children. For much of my 42 years as a teacher I saw reform in my first grade when I succeeded in teaching each English Language Learner how to speak, read and write English to a good degree by the end of the year. Each year I learned new things, tried new strategies and saw “reform” in the guise of improved academic success for my students.

    So the Stanford graduate students CAN be agents for reform but it is unlikely they will do it by being consultants, testing executives, or administrators. It will only come about if they bring their commitment, knowledge and hard work to the classroom. They need to become teachers.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Linda,
      After these many years, it is fine to hear from you. Thanks for the comment. Stanford has a one-year teacher education program for both elementary and secondary teachers that prepares about 75-100 graduates for classrooms in the Bay area and beyond. Many end up teaching until they retire; many teach for a few years and go into administration as principals and district office posts with others becoming, over time, policy analysts, and even consultants. The aim of the program is to prepare teachers who can meet the demands of classroom teaching while working toward reducing the social inequities that mark U.S. society.

      I applaud your 42 years of teaching children. Your pride in being a teacher infuses your comment. Thanks again.

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